Watching The Watchers: Paolo Cirio’s Portraits Of NSA Officials

Courtesy NOME project and Photo by Bresadola+Freese/

For the first time, conceptual artist, hacker and activist, Paolo Cirio, has brought his public intervention pieces together for the new solo show “Overexposed” at NOME gallery. Having previously been pasted across major cities including New York, London and Paris, the exhibition presents nine works depicting unauthorised pictures of high-ranking US intelligence officials gleaned from their own, or their associates’, social media photo albums. When together in a gallery context, the collection of mugshots are suggestive of a courtroom stage where these “cyber war generals” are unknowingly (or in some cases knowingly) summonsed by Cirio for scrutiny in a public arena. Sleek recently spoke to Cirio about his ongoing investigation into the casualties of the public versus private “information war” and what it means to make provocative work involving such a high level of risk. 

Tell us about your new exhibition “Overexposed” at NOME and the process of obtaining snapshots of the CIA/FBI/ NSA officers through social media? How did you select each figure?

This artwork is about photos of US Intelligence officials found on social media and disseminated on public walls, in order to expose some of those responsible for programmes of mass surveillance. I spent months reading news articles about the Edward Snowden revelations, and assembled lists of intelligence officials including how they were connected to each other. Using social media I searched through and selected pictures of each of them that were published by people who knew them or had encountered them. I also used browser plugins and created fake personae on social media sites, requesting to be friends with people who were close to the officials in order to ask them questions.

How did you recreate these images onto canvas using technical processes employed in street art?

Beyond the conceptual ideas of the re-contextualization and appropriation of information, the project also refers to the legacy of graffiti and mural as a visual medium for political messages. I coded an open source script that converts any images into high definition stencils which are cut by laser cutter machines. I adapted a script which pixelates videos and worked on fine-tuning the placement of custom vector shapes based on the luminance of the group of pixels. Colour is also an important part of the process and must be in the order of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black spray paint, otherwise the final image appears unrealistic. When placed inside the art gallery, they resemble pop portraits of today’s Napoleons: the cyber-war generals who will probably become historical figures for their military aspirations. While in the street they are a form of protest in-keeping with the street art style.

Profiles and photos of Overexposed artwork series. Research assembled by Paolo Cirio, 2014-2015
Profiles and photos of Overexposed artwork series. Research assembled by Paolo Cirio, 2014-2015


Profiles and photos of Overexposed artwork series. Research assembled by Paolo Cirio, 2014-2015
Profiles and photos of Overexposed artwork series. Research assembled by Paolo Cirio, 2014-2015

Do you work with a community of hackers when gathering data, images and organising cyber attacks (as with NATO)?

I hack, strategise and organise on my own most of the time. It requires a lot of skill, research and thinking. It’s difficult to work on all those levels with someone else, as these kinds of operations require high control and coordination due to the level of risk involved. Moreover, my projects are always meant to engage with regular people rather than hackers who usually work anonymously. In order to engage the public in my work, my activity is largely publicised and I use my real name in order to strengthen my plight.

Having been confronted with investigations and legal battles, what is it that compels you to continue making provocative political work?

Investigations and legal battles are often the goals of my provocations. However, I always operate carefully in the grey areas of the law, often calling out illegalities conducted by the companies and authorities in my artworks. It’s also the case that my provocations are sometimes ignored or the legal threats stop in order to avoid further exposure, as these reactions are also presented in the project.

I consider some of my artworks to be art performances in which I involve authorities and individuals in the conflicts I create. These performances are temporary enactments of contemporary social conflicts ­– such as legal battles – that are meant to reveal more about society.

“Overexposed” is an intervention with less participation and rather organised as a set of events, which involved me pasting those pictures onto public spaces in Paris, London, NYC and Berlin, as a kind of global action during the course of two weeks.

Curtesy by NOME project and Photo by Bresadola+Freese/
Courtesy NOME project and Photo by Bresadola+Freese/

How does satire help to communicate the officials’ loss of control when such pictures of them are shown?

Satire is only in some of my works, though it definitely helps to make them more popular. In this case, the satire is quite subtle where, for instance, I decided not to add the names of the officials to their photo captions, as I wanted to allow space for interpretation. They could be anyone’s selfies, in a way, it ‘s a warning to everyone. Those pictures aren’t embarrassing per se, but when they appear on public walls we perceive them differently.

Can you elaborate on the shift of power that takes place and whether the officials are aware of the use of their images?

I made use of the so-called “Open-Source Intelligence” and gathered information that is already in the public domain. Today, social media is used so widely that much personal information is left behind, meaning that it is possible for anyone to aggregate information for surveillance purposes, where sophisticated hacking techniques are not necessary.

The shift of power can happen on all sorts of levels, as the conditions of the internet means that it can be exploited both by individuals and the authorities. I think that power dynamics are simply more fluid and being able to understand them and channel them is actually the only real form of power that counts today.

Courtesy NOME project and Photo by Bresadola+Freese/

What was it that originally made you want to address issues of privacy, finance, copyright and democracy in your work?

I consider myself a contemporary artist working with contemporary matters. The internet greatly affects privacy, finance, copyright and democracy, so I work within the field that is most relevant to our times. I’ve always been interested in avant-garde art forms, when I was a kid I used to read manifestos for art movements, and therefore made the decision to dedicate my life to what I believe is my duty as a contemporary artist and thinker.

Reversal of power and “the casualties of the information war” are common themes in your practice as well as the war between public and private. How do you see internet and technology evolving in the future?

I think it will be an endless war for the control of the internet, and we might only be at the prehistory of it. That also means we are still building social norms and legal frameworks to use it in the best way. Think of how messy the first years of a new technological and social development can be. Artistically this is a very interesting time for cultural and social adaptation to new environments.

Profiles and photos of Overexposed artwork series. Research assembled by Paolo Cirio, 2014-2015, Paris

“After Transparency” is the name of your retrospective now showing in Toulouse. How did you select the works featured in the show?

In “Face to Facebook”, I looked at how the idea of personal privacy should be protected, whereas “Loophole for All”, is looking at how secrecy and anonymity of some institutions should be avoided. New constructions of social norms are indicated in the work “Global Direct” which tries to structure the organisation of society as a creative process and is reconfigured as an efficient algorithm. There’s a lot of confusion surrounding the internet, while I think the structural potential and dangers haven’t really been addressed yet, objectively and pragmatically.

Do you get a sense of satisfaction from taking on these huge corporations?

Behind the scenes of my artistic production is the most enjoyable part. I only publish a small portion of the reactions I receive about my work, where there are always several interesting adventures happening with a degree of serendipity.

I personally like “Loophole for All” the most, which involved a hack in the Cayman Islands. I worked on it for years, and am pleased with the details, reactions and vulnerabilities it produced. Nevertheless it’s an important subject involving data that heavily affects millions of people, worldwide.

The work is actually very stressful and some days before the release of each project, I can become quite anxious. However the importance of the subject, especially the beauty of the idea behind the artwork is what really motivates me artistically – to push the boundaries of safety and comfort!

Interview by Abigail Toll

“Overexposed” is showing at NOME gallery 22 May – 20 July 2015 

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